How can you put down a book that starts like this: “There are gods in Alabama. I know because I killed one.”
When I read the back jacket of gods in Alabama, I got the impression that this book would be a story about Arlene Fleet, raised in Alabama but self-exiled to Chicago, returning home after ten years with her black boyfriend Burr in tow to attend her uncle’s retirement party. It seemed like most of the conflict in the book was going to turn on the interracial relationship and how Arlene’s family would react to it. What you actually get is a book split pretty evenly between present-day and flashbacks, with Joshilyn leading you in baby steps toward understanding the relationships that Arlene has with her Aunt Florence and her cousin Clarice. It’s like a character study of Arlene, and it’s definitely a love story. But it’s not a love story about Arlene and Burr – it’s a love story about Arlene and Aunt Florence.
When Arlene was a toddler living in Kansas with her parents, her father died and her mother Gladys lost her mind. Because she’s recently lost a child herself, and because Arlene and Gladys are her family, Florence drives to Kansas, packs Arlene and Gladys into her truck, and moves them into her home in Alabama. She talks the elementary school principal into putting Arlene in her daughter Clarice’s third-grade class even though Arlene ought to be in second. She takes charge of Gladys’ painkiller addiction. She is a force to be reckoned with. Arlene grows up in respectful fear of Florence and total adoration of her beautiful, sweet cousin Clarice. But by her sophomore year of high school, Arlene has decided that she has to leave Alabama when she graduates. She doesn’t decide this because she’s unhappy or ungrateful – she makes a deal with God that she will never lie, never sleep with another boy, and never ever return to Alabama if God will just keep everyone from discovering that she killed Jim Beverly.
Joshilyn does a great job of tying the present-day and flashback stories together to help you understand exactly what would lead fifteen year old Arlene to murder Jim Beverly, the high school quarterback and every girl’s choice for a date to homecoming. Arlene is a great character, and some of the best parts of the novel are the bits where she’s puzzling out her motives for the way she has behaved the past ten years. She does love her family, and she loves Burr, but she’s been carrying around an impossible weight of guilt and fear that make it impossible for her to be as close to them as she wants.
Arlene is the main character and the narrator, but I would argue that Aunt Florence dominates her fair share of the story. In her notes after the final chapter of book, Joshilyn says that people always assume she wrote Arlene as a version of herself, but she actually identifies more strongly with Aunt Florence. She says that her children “are the sum total of my heart. And sum total of my heart is even now, as I type this, out in the world wandering around, probably in traffic. It’s unendurable. How do we go through every day with them out there on their bikes, among snakes and lightning and mean kids and rabid squirrels and chaos theory and predators?” Aunt Florence has this same fierce protectiveness and single-minded need to make the world a safe place for her daughter and Arlene. Even when Arlene moves to Chicago and makes excuses about why she won’t come home for Christmases or birthdays, Aunt Florence calls her twice a week. Arlene knows if she doesn’t answer the phone for those calls, Florence will get in the car and drive up to Chicago to find out why. She may not live under Florence’s roof any longer, but Florence will never let her slip quietly out of the family.
This is my fifth book by Joshilyn Jackson, and there is something about her writing that is completely different from anyone else’s. She writes these stories about Southern women and their crazy families and the terrifying things we are capable of doing to protect the people we love. There were several unexpected twists at the end, but Joshilyn does such a great job setting you up for them that they don’t feel unrealistic. I think my favorite of Joshilyn’s books is still A Grown-up Kind of Pretty, but this was an excellent story.